Even with some students gone for the Thanksgiving break, an enthusiastic crowd listed at 13,865 had numerous reasons to cheer. It gave Illini players a boost, according to Mike Davis.
"The crowd was great actually. They were loud. I loved it. I think with every win, they build up some confidence in us and begin to trust us."
Davis had probably his best game as an Illini, scoring 20 points on 9 for 10 shooting plus 2 of 2 free throws. He also grabbed a team high 6 rebounds while dishing out 5 assists. His outstanding play led Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson to single him out while praising the Illinois team.
"I want to congratulate Coach Weber, he has a very fine team here. He's big, he's strong. Where'd he get this Mike Davis kid from? He can really score. He has a fine team."
Davis was humble about his good day.
"I'm just having fun. We got some runouts, some easy buckets. My teammates are doing a good job finding me, so it's been pretty easy."
The five assists provided his teammates with opportunities as well, and they knocked them down. In fact, the Illini shot 62% from the field for the game and nearly 70% in the first half. Davis credited teamwork with the high percentage.
"Coach always says to make the extra pass. That's what everybody did today. Everybody knocked down shots, so that's good."
Illinois began the game alternating scoring streaks with the Tigers. First the Illini would score six straight, and then the Blue Bengals would answer with a streak of their own to close the gap.
But Illinois scored the last ten points of the half to take a 44-30 lead into the locker room. Richard Semrau hit a layup off a high post feed from Davis, Semrau fed Demetri McCamey for three, Davis hit a bucket off a Calvin Brock feed, and McCamey found Brock for a three at the buzzer.
Weber was pleased with the run to end the half.
"Nineteen of the first 20 baskets came off assists. We shot the ball well. We moved the ball well, we were almost 2-1 in the assist/turnover ratio, and that's a positive. The play hard chart was pretty good in the first half, a good finish to the half. We picked it up defensively, made some plays down the stretch, got runouts."
Illinois began the second half slowly, but midway through the second stanza they put on a run that finished off the Tigers. Leading just 48-40, the Illini scored 22 of the next 26 points to expand their advantage to 70-44.
A big factor in that surge was the improved play of forward Dominique Keller. He was a perfect 8 for 8 from the field for 16 points on a variety of inside moves, and grabbed four rebounds in 17 minutes. Perhaps his most memorable play came when he grabbed a rebound, dribbled up to midcourt before passing to the side to Trent Meacham, who found Brock in the corner, who passed back to Keller for a resounding dunk.
Coach Weber was happy to see Dominique have a good day.
"One of the best things about Dominique the other day at Vandy, he played 8 minutes, went 0-4 and kind of struggled. But after the game he was very happy. He was chest-bumping, cheering, he didn't pout. And guess what happened. When you have a good attitude and you're happy for your teammates, you're rewarded. And he has a little bit of a breakout game."
Meacham was a focus of the JSU defense, but he still managed to score 10 points. And he continues to find ways to score late in the shot clock with drives to the hoop. McCamey scored all of his 8 points in the first half, but he also had 7 assists and three rebounds. Chester Frazier had only three points, but he also dished out 6 assists and had three rebounds.
Another positive about recent Illini games has been free throw shooting. Counting McCamey's two free throws at the end of the Texas A & M Corpus Christi game last week, Illinois made 21 straight free throws. Sub Bill Cole missed three of five to break the streak, but this is still a major improvement over the last two years.
Jackson State coach Anderson has a vote for top 25, and he claims he's ready to vote for Illinois.
"I think this team is gonna be in the top 25 pretty soon. I have one vote, and they'll get mine because they're deserving of that. They execute their offense real well, they play real hard, and they play good defense."
He has also lost to a talented Texas A & M quintet, a possible Illinois opponent in the South Padre games next Friday and Saturday. He had an interesting reaction when asked who might win a game between the two.
"I would take Illinois. I'm not just saying that because we're here. They're the deepest team and the best team."